The Popularity of the Lottery


The lottery is any competition whose outcome depends solely on luck or chance. This might include a contest in which the prize money is allocated by a process that relies entirely on chance, or one in which the prize is awarded to the person who submits the most correct answer or to the player who hits the winning shot in a sporting event. But it also encompasses any other arrangement that involves a fee and a drawing of names, even if the later stages require some degree of skill. For example, deciding which judges are assigned to a case is often described as “a bit of a lottery.”

Lotteries are the most common form of gambling and are largely legal in the United States, although some state governments have regulated them and some prohibit them. Their popularity stems from the allure of unimaginable wealth and an inherent sense that, if you could just hit the lottery, your life would improve. It is a form of covetousness, which the Bible forbids (see Exodus 20:17 and Ecclesiastes 5:10).

In Cohen’s telling, the modern incarnation of the lottery started in the nineteen-seventies, as rising awareness about the enormous amounts to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. As a result, many states began experimenting with ways to raise money without enraging an anti-tax electorate.

Unlike other games of chance, the lottery is a game where the odds of winning are much worse than the likelihood of losing. Nevertheless, it remains wildly popular because people continue to believe that the one-in-three million odds of winning are better than the one-in-five hundred thousand chances of losing.

Another reason for the lottery’s popularity is that it allows people to buy tickets with modest sums, which are then pooled into a large pot and distributed to the winners. The winner can choose to receive the entire amount at once, or to split it up into regular payments. The lump-sum option may be best for anyone who needs the funds for immediate investments or debt clearance, but it requires disciplined financial management if the winner wants to maintain their wealth.

Those with more income tend to play the lottery less frequently than those with lower incomes; for example, those earning over fifty thousand dollars per year spend only one percent of their annual income on tickets, while those earning less than thirty-thousand dollars spend thirteen percent. They also purchase fewer tickets, on average—though the numbers are staggering: According to an analysis conducted by the consumer financial company Bankrate, players making over fifty thousand dollars per year spend about twenty times as much on tickets as those who make less than fifteen thousand. However, they purchase far fewer of the most improbable combinations, which, in combination with the law of large numbers, improve the odds of success. This approach is known as “smart lotto playing.”